Cheyenne Autumn, The (1964) John Ford’s Revisionist Western

John Ford’s The Cheyenne Autumn, his very last Western, portrays sympathetically the Native American’s heroic fight to return to their home after being forced by the white men to a new reservation.

Cheyenne Autumn
Cheyenne autumn poster.JPG

Theatrical release poster

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Cheyenne Autumn is often described as Ford’s apology to the types of Indians he had presented so one-dimensionally in his previous films. The great nobility of the Cheyenne, the absurdly evil German camp commandant, and the film’s outcome, when the U.S. government reverses its decision concerning the Cheyenne, support this idea.

As the scholar Place has noted, in the book, from which the story and film’s title derive, the Indians’ point of view is taken throughout, and the few white characters do not stand out as individuals.

However, the Native Americans in Cheyenne Autumn are much like those of his earlier film, they stand for “something,” rather than being flesh-and-blood individuals. Indeed, the Indians are not even presented as hostile individuals, just as a massive collective.

No character, not even the Spanish Woman and her son Red Shirt, are explored on screen to the extent that we know what makes them different from the other tribe members.

The lack of a distinct Indian perspective may be the reason why this work cannot be taken either as the final statement on what Ford thinks of Indians or as an apology for his former movies.

The fact that Ford places the American Dream in the past, instead of in the present or future, suggests his disillusionment  with that Dream.

The movie was a commercial failure, perhaps because Ford is looking at the Indians from the outside, failing to get inside the characters he’s clearly trying to ennoble.

Even so, for a movie made in 1964, the attitude toward Native Americans is more liberal than other Hollywood movies of the time.

Some critics drew comparisons between the persecution of Indians and the persecution of Jews in concentration camps.

What has changed, however, is Ford’s view of progress and the effect it has had on the West, an idea that is more clearly explored in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart as opposing forces of the West.

Technically, the movie was poorly cut, resulting in an inconsistent rhythm. As a work of art, it is inferior to Ford’s most Westerns of the 1950s.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography (Color): William Clothier

The winner, however, was Harry Stradling for George Cukor’s musical, “My Fair Lady.”

Production and cast

The film was shot in Monument Valley and Moab, Utah.

The cast includes:

Richard Widmark as Captain Thomas Archer
Carroll Baker as Deborah Wright
Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp
Edward G. Robinson as the Secretary of the Interior
Karl Malden as Captain Wessels
Dolores Del Rio as the Spanish Woman

Running Time: 145 minutes